For the Conservation Curious

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October 30, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 11:15 AM
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On October 3 I blogged about going to the Czech Republic. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend that trip now, but the reason for that is a good one. Starting on November 10, I will begin a new job as Senior Analyst with Marstel Day, an environmental consulting firm headquartered in Virginia. I have a feeling this job will keep me very busy, so my blogging may slow down, at least initially. I just wanted to let you all know that.

In honor of tomorrow being Halloween, I want to blog about bats. Bats are wonderful creatures that are misunderstood and under-appreciated for a variety of reasons. Hopefully I can show you that bats are valuable and important components of the ecosystem, well worth protecting.

In Pennsylvania, there are nine common species of bats. These are: the most common one – the little brown, the big brown, the Eastern pipistrelle, the tri-colored or pygmy, the Northern long-eared, the endangered Indiana, the small-footed, the silver-haired, the red, and the largest one – the hoary bat. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, one individual bat can consume up to 500 insects per hour or more than 3,000 insects in a single night. Think about that when you’re sitting outside on a hot summer night, fighting off the mosquitos. Bats are a natural mosquito control. Bats also eat those pesky stinkbugs that like to invade your home and eat from your veggie garden. How nice is that?!

Bats fall into two categories, those that overwinter in caves and those that migrate south when it starts to get cold. Big brown bats are the last bats to enter hibernation in caves, buildings, mines and storm sewers. Hoary bats, on the other hand, migrate south for the winter. During nice weather you may find bats roosting under loose tree bark, under house shutters, or in man-made bat boxes. You might also find bats roosting in your attic. If so, do not be alarmed. Look to the Penn State guide, “A Homeowner’s Guide to Northeastern Bats and Bat Problems,” to learn tips about bat-proofing your home. Once all openings are sealed except for one, let the bats escape at night, then seal the final opening. Consider building a bat box near your house to provide them a nice alternative.

Bats are not doing very well throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, so they could use our help. Cave bats like the endangered Indiana and the little brown are dying out in record numbers due to White Nose Syndrome (WNS), an invasive fungus that weakens the bats and until they die from starvation or predation. This syndrome was first documented in 2006 in New York, showing up in Pennsylvania in 2008. According to the National Wildlife Health Center, they have documented an approximately 80 percent decline in bat populations in the northeastern U.S. since the syndrome was discovered. They go on to say that it is very unlikely that those species of bats affected by WNS will recover quickly because bats have only one pup per year. We can help them out as much as possible by staying out of caves, especially during the winter, and disinfecting your shoes and gear after being in a cave, to limit the spread of the fungus.

Bats are busy little insect-eaters that also help pollinate flowering plants. They may not be adorable like a rabbit or kitten, but they can and should be appreciated for all they do for us and the environment. The next time you freak out about a bat flying overhead, instead think, “Hey, thanks for eating those mosquitos!”

(Photos: USGS)

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Clear Cuts Can be Clearly Good October 16, 2014

I’ve been working on a few outreach publications related to forestry and timber harvesting lately, and it makes me think about the myriad people who have a negative reaction when they think of cutting trees. Some people are opposed absolutely to any form of timber harvesting, while others are against certain practices like “clear cutting.” I don’t come from a forestry background, so I can sympathize with them. There was a time when I believed all clear cuts were horrible and that too many trees were being cut down, but with a bit of knowledge my opinion has changed. Perhaps I can persuade you to see clear cuts in a different light, as well.

But before I begin on the merits of (some) clear cuts I want to make absolutely clear that there can be very bad clear cuts if they are done improperly or on certain sites. A lot of thought needs to go into any timber cut BEFORE any action is taken on the ground, not during or after. It essential that a properly trained, professional forester does the work. They know that once the trees are removed there will be adequate regeneration of trees from either seeds in the ground or seeds blown in from the surrounding trees. They know that there aren’t too many deer that could impede that regeneration by eating all the saplings, or too many invasive plants that could come into the clear cut and dominate the area. They know how to prevent soil erosion by using proper best management practices for their haul and skid roads and leaving a buffer of trees along streams and rivers. Only then can a clear cut be sustainable.

If a clear cut is done correctly, many good things can come from it. There are a variety of animal species that benefit from the openings made by a clear cut, as well as from the young growth forest that comes up later (more than 200 species, in fact). Endangered golden winged warbler, chestnut sided warbler, grouse, bear, and eastern box turtle are just a small sampling. The abundant sunlight that is created with a clear cut allows sun-loving tree species like pines, aspens, black cherry and sassafras a better chance to grow and thrive. They can’t compete well with tall oaks and maples in a mature, intact forest.


(Photo: Connecticut DEP)

Clear cuts might not be attractive, and certainly, compared to a mature forest in all its fall glory they’re not. But the forest that grows up in its place will be healthier and just as magnificent. All it takes is a bit of patience and understanding to see it for what it is… healthy habitat in the making.

Want to learn more about clear cuts and other silvicultural practices? Just Google the term and look for reputable source from state bureaus of forestry. There’s a wealth of information out there.

 

Flying Squirrels do Exist in PA September 8, 2014

I would like to share with you some information about a fascinating creature: the flying squirrel. I was lucky enough to see one of these small, grey mammals a handful of years ago. It was late and I was standing outside my parent’s house, when all of a sudden I saw a streak across the night sky as something landed on the large, old sugar maple in front of me. I looked up and saw what I thought to be a flying squirrel, but at the time I didn’t know that we had flying squirrels in Pennsylvania. I did a Google check the next day to make sure my eyes didn’t deceive me. Yes, in fact I had seen a flying squirrel!

There are two species of flying squirrels in Pennsylvania – the northern and southern squirrels. I saw most likely a southern squirrel, as they are the more common of the two. Both species are nocturnal, meaning they only come out at night. That’s one of the main reasons most people have never seen one, and why only my active social life at the time granted me the opportunity to see one. The squirrels spend the night eating lichens, moss, fungi and other goodies, gliding from tree to tree (they don’t really fly… bats are the only mammals that can do that) at average distances of 20 to 40 feet.

Both species are a light brown color on top, with a whitish belly. It is very difficult to tell the two species apart. The northern squirrels are slightly larger, but when one is gliding quickly past you in the dark of night, chances are you won’t get a good enough look to determine its species type. Southern squirrels are generalists in their habitat preference, living in suburban areas as well as wilder areas, while the northern species, rare in Pennsylvania, prefers remote coniferous forests.

And as you might know, Pennsylvania’s confer forests are facing a serious, invasive threat – the hemlock wooly adelgid. This tiny insect attacks our state tree, the eastern hemlock, and has killed thousands of them across the state. When the hemlocks die, the northern flying squirrel loses a home. As hardwood trees move in to fill the vacant niche, so too come the southern squirrels, which carry a parasite that is lethal to the northern squirrels.

All is not bleak, though, for the northern squirrels. Researcher Carolyn Mahan from Penn State received funding from the Wild Resource Conservation Fund and Game Commission to study reforest areas of the state with red spruce, a conifer tree that the northern squirrels seem to like. Hopefully through these efforts the northern flying squirrel will be able to hang out and perhaps even thrive in Pennsylvania, able to withstand the unintended bad habits of their southern cousins.

I hope so. Not only would I like to check-off the northern flying squirrel from my mammal life list, but it’s just good to know that the efforts of dedicated people can postively impact the survival of species.

 

Is There a Humane Way to Deal With Invasive Animals? May 29, 2014

I read an article today (http://maryland.newszap.com/crisfieldsomerset/132290-92/chesapeakes-marshes-may-see-end-of-invasive-nutria) about how the Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Program is working well, and that the people involved in the program may actually succeed in removing all these large, invasive rodents from the Bay. It also mentions the success people have had with eradicating the invasive mute swan from the region. As someone who worked on invasive species issues for many years, albeit mostly related to plants, I applaud the efforts of these folks and am excited for their success story.

However, the animal lover in me cringes a little bit when I read articles like this, especially when they describe how the nutria are trapped and killed. The traps are similar to what people use to trap beavers for their pelts… the animal is snared by the leg and drowned. I’ve never agreed with how beavers are trapped, so I cannot agree with their use here, even if nutria are highly destructive to the wetland and marsh habitats they live in. There has to be a move humane way to do this.

nutria_wikimedia
(Photo:Wikimedia.com)

Many animal rights activists oppose the culling of invasive animals on the grounds that the practice is inhumane. When looking at the issue from the 40,000 feet view, I disagree with them. Invasive species cause significant damage to habitats, in turn negatively affecting and sometimes killing other, native wildlife. Most invasives are here because of foolish or unintended consequences of human actions, so I feel that it is our duty to do something about them. But it’s how we do something about them that I may have an issue with. I used to be very opposed to herbicides, no matter what. I thought of them as a poison with which we contaminate the earth. Yet as I learned more through my job, I came to realize that sometimes herbicides are the only solution to eliminating certain invasive plant species. Herbicides shouldn’t ever be the only line of defense, and hopefully aren’t the first choice in many situations, but they do have their place.

So it is with invasive animal control. Think of the Burmese pythons that are taking over the Everglades. These are long, strong, animal eating machines. Should we just let them slither their way across the state of Florida? No, I don’t think so. The same goes for nutria, mute swans, feral hogs, snakehead fish, Asian carp, and a whole host of other invasive animal species in the U.S. Yet how we control these animals says a lot about how we treat animals in general. If someone has no problem drowning a beaver for its pelt, then of course they have no problem drowning a nuisance species by the same method. Changing this process will take considerable education.

How can we deal with the invasive species problem in a humane way? Better minds than mine will need to think about that. But I hope that someone is thinking about that. I certainly want the Chesapeake Bay to become a healthier, more productive ecology in the future, but I hope that can be achieved with less brutality in the future.

 

Trees do so Much April 9, 2014

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:15 PM
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Trees are terrific! Can anyone argue with that? Well, I guess I should add a caveat to my statement, “MOST trees are terrific!” There are invasive tree species out there that are the bane of many people’s existence, including mine, like Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) and Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), to name just a few. And some trees are more terrific than others. Trees native to your specific area are generally better than non-natives, although if you live in an urban area you may need some non-invasive, non-native trees to withstand road salt, the urban heat island effect and the other tough growing conditions found in urban areas. Trees like Goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata), Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulate) and Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrate) will grow well under tough conditions, yet not grow uncontrollably like an invasive.

Spring is a great time to plant trees, but you need to make sure you’re planting them in the proper site, with the proper techniques. Check out the TreeVitalize program website to learn all about proper tree selection, siting, installation and maintenance – http://www.treevitalize.net. Plus, if you live in certain parts of Pennsylvania you can download a coupon to save $15 off the purchase of a tree at participating nurseries. Municipalities and non-profits can even apply for grants to help defray costs on bulk tree plantings.

redbud_paul wray
(Photo of Eastern Redbud by Paul Wray, Iowa State U., http://www.forestryimages.org)

I live in a city center, surrounded by a lot of pavement. In such situations adding tree canopy cover is essential. Trees provide us with cleaner air and cleaner water, shade to lower heating bills and make sitting outside on a hot day more enjoyable, and aesthetic beauty. There was already a Japanese maple in my backyard when I purchased my home, but I added a native Eastern redbud tree too. It has grown a lot over the last three years, even given the poor quality city “soil” and is just plain beautiful in the spring with its pinkish-purple flowers. The flowering dogwood in front of my house provides food for the squirrels (they love to eat the fruits, sometimes to my chagrin) and blocks some prying eyes from being able to look into my living room window. Trees do so much for us!

 

Mighty Mammals February 28, 2014

Over the past week or so I have watched a fascinating BBC documentary series called “The Life of Mammals,” thanks to my Netflix subscription. I was a zoology major in college so I like to think that I know a lot about the world’s animals… and maybe I do, compared to the average person on the street. But this series has shown me that there are so many weird and wonderful mammals out there that I couldn’t possibly know them all. From the cute numbat in Australia that looks like a striped squirrel with one of the longest tongues I’ve ever seen, to the wide variety of antelope on the African savannahs, the world’s mammals are amazing.

So I thought I would highlight a few of the interesting Pennsylvania mammal species here. While they may not be as unique as the egg laying echidna or duck-billed platypus, they have their own special features that make them just as important.

Water shrew – The BBC show actually featured this tiny creature in the episode on insect eaters. What makes the water shrew so interesting are its fur and feet. The fur is so densely packed that it is water-proof. That’s good because the water shrew hunts for insect prey underwater. When the water shrew dives air bubbles are trapped in its fur, helping it stay buoyant. As soon as it leaves the water all it takes are a few shakes to get the water out of its fur. The feet are partially webbed and have special hairs on the ankles, aiding the water shrew in swimming. Talk about an animal perfectly adapted for its lifestyle!

Porcupine – Everyone knows that porcupines have “needles” that can hurt you if you get to close to them, but did you know that those quills are modified hairs? And porcupines cannot shoot those quills at you… you must touch them in order for them to come loose. A porcupine can have over 30,000 of them! The name “porcupine” is Latin for “quill pig” – quite an apt name. Porcupines have an appetite for wood, usually, but have been known to eat plastic and metal too. Our state park and forest staff have had to replace many signs and structures across the state thanks to porcupine damage!

Flying squirrels – Did you know that Pennsylvania is home to not one but two flying squirrel species? We have both Northern and Southern flying squirrels. Where their territories overlap, the more aggressive southern one may bully the northern one and steal their home. How rude! Flying squirrels can’t actually fly, but they use the large flap of skin between their front and hind legs as a sort of hang-glider, launching them from trees for as far as 150 feet. Few people see flying squirrels as they are small and nocturnal, but I was lucky enough to see one on a dying sugar maple in my parents’ front yard many years ago. Perhaps it was nesting inside the rotting tree? It was a sight of a lifetime, that’s for sure!

my flying squirrel
Drawing by Jessica Sprajcar

Pennsylvania is home to just over 60 species of mammals, although many of those are very rare or uncommon. And did you know that Pennsylvania was once home to wolverines, badgers, lynx, mountain lions, wolves, moose and bison? Unfortunately all those mammals are now extirpated from the state, but perhaps one day we will see them again? Deer, beaver and river otters are all mammal reintroduction success stories to gain hope from.

 

Conservation Wish List for 2014 January 2, 2014

It’s 2014, which means it’s time to create a list of things I hope to see happen (or not happen) in the coming year. I like to think about my sustainability and natural resource conservation dream list… if the sky’s the limit, what could we see take place in 2014? Here are some of my desires, in no particular order…

The Sustainable PA Program will be rolled out to the public and embraced by municipalities across the Commonwealth

New York will keep its moratorium on fracking

Orcas can no longer be held in captivity

Genetically modified foods will have to be labeled if they are sold in the U.S.

More people will embrace the use of native plants in their gardens and yards

Dolphins and whales would not be killed for food or “research”

No new invasive species will enter the country

More municipalities will embrace “green” storm water management strategies like porous pavement, rain gardens and bioswales

Pennsylvania gets a new governor

More climate change deniers are shown the light and start spreading the word about its dangers

When someone abuses an animal they get more than a slap on the wrist

More people decide to live a vegetarian lifestyle or at least cut way down on their meat consumption

Do you have any conservation-related hopes for 2014? If so, let us know about them. Thanks!